Friday, March 06, 2009

Meeting of the Minds

One of the university committees to which I devote some of my time involves discussion and voting via email. Thus far this year, the committee had not met in person in a real room with chairs and a table and a carafe of ice water and such. In fact, one of the enticements the Dean used when he called me last year to convince me to be on this committee was the fact that this committee "never" meets except by email.

This has been fortunate, because the committee involves a fair amount of time reviewing documents and summarizing things and making decisions. The time commitment would be oppressive if we had actual meetings.

One member of the committee, however, has been longing for us to meet. He has made passionate pleas for an actual meeting because he thinks that the back-and-forth element of discussion in real-time with real people is an invaluable aspect of the decision-making process.

He is right of course, and the committee chair finally acceded to these pleas. We recently provided our schedules for the near future (a sobering thing, seeing one's essentially full schedule typed out for the purposes of filling in one of the few 'open' time slots in it), and a time was found for us to meet.

Regarding scheduling, appearances are deceiving. It's true that I didn't have a class or other meeting at the chosen time and chosen day, but I don't really have time. I had agreed to substitute-teach for another professor later that same day of the meeting, and I had 57 million other extra things to do on top of the usual things during a week when my husband is traveling and my daughter has a disrupted school schedule and so on and so on.

But meet we must, I suppose, so I went to the meeting and tried not to resent the committee member who wanted us to get together. I did not make passive-aggressive pseudo-sarcastic comments to him such as "So, you're having a relatively easy term?" or "I'm really inspired by your dedication to this committee".

I don't know whether I'm glad we met or not. The positive aspects were some of the discussions and the random chit-chatting with professors from other departments.

The negative aspects were the time and the fact that I didn't feel entirely comfortable during some of the more contentious discussions. I have felt quite comfortable contributing my opinions by email, but it is an entirely different experience to sit around a table and argue.

My semi-discomfort stemmed in part from the specific composition of this committee. I am by far the youngest person on the committee, I am the only woman, and I am the only physical scientist -- the others are all older male engineers and mathematicians. It would not be unrealistic to suppose that my presence on this committee is owing entirely to the fact that they needed to have at least one woman member, and, because of the nature of the committee, the woman needs to be a full professor. That decreases the pool of candidates to a very small, sad number.

[Some commenters yesterday were right that being a full professor makes you eligible for all sorts of additional fun professional service opportunities, though I haven't seen any decrease in the number of these opportunities from when I was an associate professor. The committee types change, but not the committee numbers.]

In any case, I've spent enough time on committees as The Woman Committee Member to not obsess so much about having TOKEN stamped on my forehead. Mostly I just focus on the tasks at hand and make whatever contribution I have to make.

So I argued with the engineers and the math guys because they were using very rigid quantitative measures to assess things and I was using a more synoptic approach, and I was out-voted on almost everything and that was how I spent most of a morning earlier this week. I don't think I will be inspired anytime soon to plead for an actual meeting of this committee and will try to content myself with sending impersonal email votes.


John Vidale said...

Tough to generalize, not knowing the topic for the committee nor how many other people there are on the committee, but why not?

If the committee is loaded with senior mathematicians and engineers, the topic is likely more in their expertise than your physical science. If you disagree with them most of the time, and disagree to the extent of voting contrary to their consensus most of the time, that sounds a little more like shooting in the dark than taking a synoptic view.

Maybe an appropriate response to being dragged in to fulfill a token role, and dragged in for face time rather than the promised email deliberations.

Anonymous said...

I can relate! I am finding that I'm much better at making persuasive arguments in writing than on the spur of the moment in a face-to-face meeting. Luckily most of the committees I'm on don't involve too much arguing. When they do, and especially when it falls on me to bring up a Gender Issue, I'm almost always uncomfortable in the moment and then annoyed at myself later. Maybe I need to take a debate class or something.

Anonymous said...

Having done some all-email work, I have to say that there is some advantage to getting everybody in the same room now and then. In an email discussion, fast-responders may dominate, and you don't know if silence means consent or simply that the person is unable to keep up with a massive thread.

Also, when getting consensus quickly is necessary to get something moving*, it's better to just get everybody together for a short while to sign off on a few things to get started, rather than waiting for all of the slow-responders.

However, if somebody is going to have a meeting on tasks that had been done by email, it's important to not waste time. The worst idiot I'm dealing with is a guy who decided that the first meeting of a new committee should be a presentation on the goals of a national society that most committee members don't belong to, because he felt that the agenda of this society is consistent with ours. Maybe it is, but don't read me powerpoints on the history of your society. Get to the essence of it quickly so we can start sorting out what to do.

*e.g. An idiot department chair decides to announce the membership of the seminar committee a week before the start of the quarter, leaving almost no time to get speakers lined up, so you need fast agreement to start sending invites. And he makes it a big department, so there are a lot of people to get to agree.

Female Science Professor said...

The topic was not more in their expertise than mine. That is an incorrect inference.

John Vidale said...

My only defense is my logic:

1. Your quote was "It would not be unrealistic to suppose that my presence on this committee is owing entirely to the fact that they needed to have at least one woman member", which gave me the idea that you were not selected for your expertise.

2. And you are "by far the youngest person on the committee".

3. And you speculate that your inclusion may be solely to ensure the presence of at least one woman Full Prof, of which there very few.

I combined 1+2+3 to guess the topic was "more in the expertise" of the more senior engineers and math people who constitute the entire rest of the committee.

Not bulletproof logic, I admit, and I'm sorry to have impugned such a model mentor and perspective observer.

Anonymous said...

If the committee is loaded with senior mathematicians and engineers, the topic is likely more in their expertise than your physical science.

Too rational for academe.

Anonymous said...

As a female at assistant professor level in a non-lab science I can sympathise - we are in the same administrative grouping as all the lab sciences, and except for a few biologists, all the admin meetings I ever go to seem to have worked out I can represent not just my department but the entire female gender. Or alternatively, they weren't aware women existed till I walked in the room (what, you mean you have female students? Gosh!)

Female Science Professor said...

I did not feel impugned, but I felt like providing some additional details.

Here's another one: at one point in the committee we had to look at some faculty CVs. I looked at the topics of the papers, the impact of the papers, and the journals in which the papers were published. The mathengineer guys only looked at the number of papers.

John Vidale said...

Somewhat different focus, but on the topic of meetings, this year is unique in my neighborhood for the combination of our state cutting our budget and the Fed boosting our budget.

We are dizzy from the whipsaw of the department asking us to stay away from the xerox machine and stripping out TAs and the Feds demanding proposals to double our budgets faster than the university admits to being able to process the paperwork.

We now have daily meetings and conference calls to trade rumors, made desperate plans or formulate ill-considered boondoggles. Is this the general state of universities at the moment?

John Vidale said...

One more post (I realize I'm blathering too much here today).

You should have said senior and out-of-it in your description of the rest of the committee - anyone who just counts papers without doing at least lip service to their value is either out of their league or trying to pull a fast one. At least bring out the h-index or citation count to measure whether anyone read the papers. Wireless in meetings rooms is a boon to challenging these arguments.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's because engineers and mathematicians only know how to count, not read. Now, if there were impact factors or citation counts listed next to paper titles, then the engineers and mathematicians could do something with that info.

We are having a discussion of the tenure criteria in my department, where the document emphasizes counting over reading. I have heard that this "count vs. read" problem exists in every type of department, from the lowliest undergraduate department at a state school to the top-tier private research universities. The scale-invariant nature suggests that there's some sort of universal mechanism. Perhaps somebody at the Santa Fe Institute should do a cellular automata model of professors who count and professors who read.

Anonymous said...

As someone considering himself to be a mathematician, I feel insulted by being pooled with engineers, especially by someone doing sciences.

Female Science Professor said...

I am pooling the committee members, not the entire rest of the math and engineering communities. If you are on my committee, feel free to be insulted; otherwise there is no point.

shanti said...

This is not a comment on the post. I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and am inspired by your commitment to research.
I am asking this for a survey I am conducting: How much time does it take for you to prepare for a class (i) if you have taught it before(ii) taught many times (iii) teaching it for the first time
Thanks and regards,

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 8:36: As an engineer, your comment made me laugh.

Ms.PhD said...

That sounds frustrating.

I can totally relate to the whole "quantitative" assessment thing sometimes being actually more biased, because no one wants to admit that every number was generated by a biased process. It's essentially compounding the error.

I like the suggestion to include a citation number next to each publication. I have considered doing that, except for the problem that most recent papers have been cited the least simply by virtue of not having been out long enough.

FSP, I guess my hope for you is that you'll be on this committee and in a position to help choose more members, and insist at that point that you need at least 1 other woman (and have someone specific in mind, and twist her arm to get her to do it with you).

FWIW, why committee members have to be full professors, I'll never understand. I can only think of a single decision that only a full professor would be qualified to make - and that's related to whether someone is ready to become a full professor or not.

EliRabett said...

Were you always on the minority side in the Email votes??

Doctor Pion said...

You should get a nameplate that says "Token" to use at meetings like that. And an extra vote. After all, if they think they need you for perspective, they should give Perspective a real voice in the matter.

Anonymous said...

First, if you are one on a very short list of female full professors in your department, it seems likely that any committee you are on will look the same - all men except you. This does not make you the token in every single committee situation, especially if the committees are smaller. Then it's just a sample size issue (in your department, any random sample is unlikely - or so it sounds - to include more than one female full professor). At some point it becomes unfair to the rest of your department to keep mentioning that you're only on these committees as a token. Yes, the sample pool is still a problem - diversity when hiring should be looked into. But in the meantime, not every committee formation is an insult to you!

Second, I really like your blog, but this post is just whiny. You talk a big game about having gone to an all girls school which increased your confidence and assertiveness, and generally that's what your readers see when reading your blog. This post, however, makes it sound like you're timid and unable to participate in a discussion with older (male) faculty members. Please be more assertive in your next post, because I have enough female mentors who can't stand up for themselves.

In sum, there are many reasons to groan about an in person meeting: time wasted on pleasantries, tendency to over-talk decisions that should be made quickly, etc. However, being the only woman on the committee and thus feeling uncomfortable talking to the fellow committee members in person should not be on the list. If you can say it in an email, you should be able to express it person-to-person.

Anonymous said...

Please be more assertive in your next post, because I have enough female mentors who can't stand up for themselves

Well as a woman who has only ever had male mentors for both PhD and more than one postdoctoral position, I have have my share of advisors who were men and still couldn't stand up for themselves. I got extremely frustrated with my first postdoc advisor over this because I was getting screwed over by the department and by our collaborators over funding issues, amd my advisor wouldn't stand up for himself or me. When I offered to take the issue up with the funding agnecy and the Dean of the college, my advisor got mad at me telling me this could jeapardize his chances for tenure if he made hisi collaborators - who were senior faculty - angry. Therefore I kept my head down because my (male) advisor did and wanted me to do too, and thus I continued to get screwed over, lost my funding, and had to search for a new postdoc position elsewhere.

Unknown said...

This post, however, makes it sound like you're timid and unable to participate in a discussion with older (male) faculty members. Please be more assertive in your next post, because I have enough female mentors who can't stand up for themselves.

Give me a break. This post makes it sound like some faculty members aren't great great at listening, NOT that FSP didn't make a serious effort to communicate her ideas.

butterflywings said...

Sympathise, FSP.

What brought the trolls here? *sigh*.

Rational dude TM John insists FSP was imaging it like all teh emooootinoaaal wimminz do.

Caroline says STOP WHINING and it's wimminz' own fault they aren't more assertive when men don't listen to them!